When you think of “therapy,” you might think of comfy couches, digging up your past, and talking about your feelings with a psychologist or licensed mental health counselor. More likely than not, you’re thinking of conventional psychotherapy – informally referred to as “talk therapy.” But as talk therapy explodes in popularity, so too have many other forms of treatment that address emotional issues which we may not immediately associate with more conventional models of therapy. One prominent form that has grown steadily over the last century is music therapy. The idea that music can help us process emotions can seem like a big contrast to traditional talk therapy, and so we’re answering the most pressing curiosities when it comes to understanding the two different therapeutic options.
Like… Are there areas one addresses that the other cannot? Which one is best for my particular situation? Can they even complement each other?
We’ve got the answers!
While talk therapy has existed in various forms since the 1800s, music therapy isn’t exactly a newcomer to the mental health scene. It was actually first defined and used by the US War Department as treatment in 1945. Back then, it helped servicemembers recover from shell shock and other combat-related emotional and physical damages, but in the years that followed, the practice of music therapy expanded to include civilians. Now, music therapists work with people with neurological conditions, people in correctional settings, the physically ill, and individuals with a range of mental health conditions. It’s expanded from its origins in military bases to schools, hospitals, nursing homes, and of course, our own private residences. The expansion of music therapy may come as no surprise – with the advent of technology, music can be employed nearly anywhere. But what does music therapy actually entail?
Traditional music therapy requires the involvement of a licensed music therapist, who assesses your condition and suggests a music-based intervention as a course of treatment. This may involve anything from listening to music, creating music, singing, discussing lyrics, employing an instrument, or even moving with the rhythm. With the advent of technology, music-based interventions have expanded into what the NIH calls, music medicine, which doesn't necessarily require the involvement of a music therapist. Music medicine is evidence-based and clinically informed, but since it doesn't require the involvement of a music therapist, it is more accessible as a therapeutic tool, anytime anywhere. The key aspect is engaging with the music in some way, which doesn’t necessarily have to be as active as belting out a song. Simply listening to music in the background can have therapeutic effects. However you engage with the music, the foundational difference is that in talk therapy, you communicate specific events and feelings through language. What are the relative benefits of music therapy versus talk therapy? Both are therapy and involve a kind of communication, but they can affect the brain in different ways.
Conventional psychotherapy, often referred to as “talk therapy”, requires you to actively think, using the cognitive part of your brain to reflect and explain what’s going on in your head. It requires significant energy to understand and articulate all that goes into the complex, nuanced feelings that make up anyone's psychological state at a given moment, not to mention verbal and introspective ability. As any clinical psychologist will tell you, insight can be quite limited, as can the link between what is said and what may be really going on. When pressed to explain themselves, people will often reason in ways that don't accurately reflect their underlying feelings.
Since this format of therapy requires you to quite literally talk things out, talk therapy allows you to engage in a direct conversation with another person. This can help steer you towards insights that you wouldn’t have otherwise found on your own.
It’s worth noting that talk therapy is more labor intensive and requires a more active intention. On a psychological level, that’s because you need to identify potentially upsetting and burdening emotions, thoughts, and behaviors and work toward changing them. It can also be hard to find time in your busy schedule to dedicate your time and energy to consistently do that.
While talk therapy may focus heavily on the active-thinking areas of the brain, music therapy or music medicine can involve a more passive approach.
Through a combination of rhythms and tones, music directly taps into emotions, bypassing the cognitive part of the brain altogether. This allows you to experience what cannot be articulated, and potentially process things that might not otherwise be understood in a traditional talk therapy setting. The powerful emotional effects of music can change the way you feel - helping you to lighten your mood when you’re feeling low.
Another major advantage is time: You can listen to music while simultaneously doing a number of things in your day. Pop in your ear buds or turn on your speakers on a walk, cleaning your home, finishing up work, running errands, winding down in bed. To name a few.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, music therapy can:
There’s little reason to believe that music therapy and talk therapy can’t be complementary practices, and many music therapists do indeed combine them. For the reasons described above, each has the capacity to fill gaps that the other can’t. For a cognitive approach to emotions that must be ironed out and worked through, there’s talk therapy. For those feelings that can’t be described or articulated or easily shifted, music therapy can help out.
Whether you’re considering complementing your existing talk therapy with music therapy or are interested in trying therapeutic music for the first time, it’s key to arm yourself with a library of tunes that have been scientifically developed and tested to address what you’re trying to accomplish. That's why Spiritune collaborates with top music therapists, neuroscientists, and music composers to maintain a therapeutic base for music personalized for your emotional status and goals, ready to nurture you.
Ready to tune into your next therapy sesh? Check out the Spiritune app and set a soundtrack that can lend a therapeutic lift to whatever you’re dealing with.